Tendance Coatesy

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October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Critical Left Reflections.

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October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Verso. 2017.

Autumn and the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution are drawing closer. The harvest of books on the new Soviet Power is still being gathered. It is, no doubt somebody has written, the duty of socialists to study, and this crop comes, for many, at the top of the left’s reading list. Should we begin with Lenin and the debates that have arisen after the publication of Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to Be Done’ in Context (2008)? The 17th century Jansenist theologian, Saint-Cyran, claimed to have gone through Saint Augustine’s writings, 22 volumes, ten times, and his writings against the Pelagian heretics thirty. (1) There are Leninists whose familiarity with the Collected Works of Lenin  exceeds that modest accomplishment. Far better, if we are to grasp what was a stake in Russia in 1917, to start first with accounts of events: the contending politics and theories, Bolsheviks and their opponents, are embodied in the acts of the revolution.

China Miéville’s contribution is, as he announces, “a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms. (Page 2). If it is more than as a “story” that he tells the tale, Miéville, from the radical left, and the accomplished author of the BasLag weird fiction trilogy, brings a freshness and enthusiasm to the narrative, which begins in the 19th century Tsarist Russian opposition, the 1905 Revolution, and above, all the immense tragedy of the Great War which overshadowed the events that unfolded. October leaves little doubt that the immediate alternative to All Power to the Soviets was not a coalition of the left, but the threat of a successful far-right coup that would have accomplished what General Kornilov had failed impose. Miéville has both charmed and irritated those already familiar with the plot, and, one hopes, instilled both interest and caution in those not.

The Saint-Cyrans amongst the left have not been slow to argue about the take on Lenin’s Letters from Afar (March 1917), which called for the Bolsheviks to take state power. For some this remains a “bombshell”, advocating an accelerated move towards a socialist regime, telescoping previous alliances and revolutionary ‘stages’ into an immediate drive towards something close to socialism. But Miéville claims (following Lars Lih) that, “His argument that the revolution must continue remained clear, as did his exhortation to worker, ‘you must perform miracles of proletarian and popular organisation to prepare for your victory in the second stage of the revolution’ – a stage not of socialism, he would soon clarify, but of taking political power, of winning over the Soviet, to ensure the victory of the (necessarily bourgeois, democratic) revolution (Page 98). It was “continuity Bolshevism, and yet contained the seeds of a distinct and more trenchant position”. (Page 99) Readers who wish to make their own judgement can follow debates on the relationship between socialism, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and other aspects of Bolshevik programme and doctrine.

Defending the Revolution.

Of far greater interest are Miéville’s defences of the Revolution. In a concluding chapter there is a series of reflections on its outcome, to put it simply, Stalinism. The state organised Red Terror was, in a manner familiar to anybody acquainted with Miéville’s former organisation the Socialist Workers Party, explained as a result of external circumstances. The Civil War was the cause, ““Under such unrelenting pressures, these are months and years of unspeakable barbarity and suffering, starvation, mass death, the near-total collapse of industry and culture, of banditry, pogroms, torture and cannibalism. The beleaguered regime unleashes the Red terror.”(Page 312). Yet, ““there is no doubt that its reach a depth expand beyond control; that some agents of the Cheka the political police, seduced by personal power, sadism or the degradation of the moment are thugs and murders unconstrained by political conviction and wielding new authority. There is no shortage of testimonials as to their dreadful acts.”(Ibid).

October does not examine the view that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” unconstrained by the rule of law is fertile ground for abuse, thugs and murders. One may disagree with Kautsky’s critique of Bolshevism. But if Lih is correct that Lenin accepted the view that the democratic republic was an important stage in the “ripening of the proletariat” it is not the view that this is a “stage” “the essential basis for building up a Socialist system if production” that favours the eventual conquest of political power, that strikes us most today. It is his opinion that “people’s rights” such as “the protection of minorities” are the bedrock of socialism. (2)

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. 

Was Soviet Power, on the basis of interpreting Lenin’s reflections in State and Revolution (1917), made up of “working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time” a vehicle for these rights? Could take the state and politics back into the hands of the – restricted – electorate who controlled them? Lenin’s model was the barely over a couple of months long Paris Commune (8 Mar 1871 – 28 May 1871), a pluralist assembly, a heroic stand,  but which ended in a deep split between the patriotic majority of Blanquists who wished to fight by any means to the end, and an opposition of Proudhonists  and supporters of the First International (Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, Histoire de la Commune de 1871,  Published, 1876 and a standard source for Marxists for many years). Its own administrative achievements – contested – aside, this perhaps illustrates the difficulties of revolutionary democracy in war.

As Isaac Deutscher memorably commented, the Bolsheviks refused to allow the “famished and emotionally unhinged country to vote their party out of power and itself into a bloody chaos” are not hard to grasp. (3)

They had always tacitly assumed that the majority of the working class having backed them in the revolution, would go on to support them unswervingly until they had carried out the full programme of socialism. Naïve as the assumption was, it sprang from the notion that socialism was the proletarian idea par excellence that the proletariat, having once adhered to it would not abandon it. (Ibid)

The Russian Dictatorship of the Proletariat had immense ambitions. Soviet power was a lever to the transition towards socialism. But disagreements arose over the methods used to that aim. Those opposed to the militarisation of labour in War Communism, to the One Man Management that emerged, Taylorism, and what is called ‘bureaucracy’ indicated that the content, the social institutions, of ‘socialism’ were not something that was already there in the “programme”. No number of warnings about external threats can retrospectively annul the fact that the dissident voices within the left, the critics of Bolshevism whose views were far from the ‘formalism’ of Kautsky and the social democrats who rejected the revolution en bloc,

In a more open-minded fashion than many who wish to defend Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ state of grace,  Miéville says, Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes.”(Page 317) But without human rights, how can we judge such abuses? Without such standards – not trumped by the necessities of the moment – what do we have left? This is more fundamental than the ban on Bolshevik “factions” that took place at the  10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) 1921, that is –initially limited – clamp down on the freedom of inner-party debate. But even if the Party had reached agreements to tolerate loyal extra-party opposition, say with left Mensheviks and ‘non-party’ representatives in the Soviets – that is accepting disagreements in terms that they set, there was no prospect of accepting pluralism as such, that is the right of an opposition to say what they wish. As the twenties wore on this was no longer a matter of the external constraints of civil war, ‘temporary measures’, but became a matter of doctrine.

The Russian Revolution, it is customary to say, contained many potentials. Miéville points to the sense of popular power that it unleashed. Government decrees, on women’s rights, decriminalising homosexuality, and the recognition of national rights as the USSR was formed from different ‘republics’, and – within the limits of the censorship – artistic creatively briefly flourished. But the strategy of a ‘transitional dictatorship’ was the worm in the fruit.


(1) Page 293. Tome l. Port-Royal. Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin. 3rd Edition. 1867.

(2) The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Karl Kautsky. Ann Arbor. 1964 (1919)

(3) Page 505, The Prophet Armed. Trotsky 1879 – 1921. Isaac Deutscher. Oxford University press. 1979.


7 Responses

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  1. Do you have to be an intellectual like to leave a comment on here like, innit?


    August 25, 2017 at 12:49 pm

  2. Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy explains very well the rationale for the Bolsheviks’ establishing of a political monopoly: the feeling that if they relinquished power, the whole Soviet regime would crash as the main rivals for power did not want such a regime, and the first blow in the world revolution would crash. This last point is vital: the Bolshevik leaders did not see their seizing of power as a self-contained national concern; it was the first event, in a country otherwise unsuitable for such a seizing of power, of a world revolutionary process. (What I’ve read of Kautsky makes me feel that he didn’t understand that point.) They also knew that were they to fail, the replacement regime would not be a bourgeois democracy but a very repressive hard-right regime bent upon revenge.The various short-cuts and dodges used to remain in power were based upon these criteria: best to remain in power even as a minority than lose not only one’s own power, but the whole Soviet regime, and one’s head as well, not to mention the demoralisation of socialist forces elsewhere.

    One major problem was that these short-cuts and dodges tended to become part of the Bolsheviks’ standard political procedure, and I suspect that many of the new recruits to the party regarded them as what Bolshevism was all about. These two factors combined to form a type of politics that tended to be very defensive and ill-disposed to constructive criticism, not only from outside but increasingly from within. Hence, the ban on factions, brought in to prevent the party blowing itself apart in a faction-fight and not to suppress debate about policy, became just that, and led to suppression of internal debate and violent faction fights. Looking further ahead, such an outlook helped to drive the process whereby the Soviet party-state apparatus, divorced from the masses, losing its base in the working class, could become a proto-élite and then an authentic élite.

    It all depended, ultimately, on events abroad: could the workers seize power in Europe, and thus ‘rescue’ the Soviet regime? Lenin said this many times: and he was spot-on. That they weren’t capable of doing so suggests that the October Revolution was not the first blow in the world revolution but the Paris Commune writ large.

    Dr Paul

    August 25, 2017 at 1:50 pm

  3. Paul, I said mentioned the hard-right threat, though I did not mention the world revolution angle – I would have had to have written several pages more…

    The idea informing the review, was based my analysis from a recent re-reading of Hal Draper’s book (Pictured) and a pile of other texts, was indeed that the doctrine of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, not as an emergency measure but a “theory of the transition” through violence, no rule of law, and no opposition was part of their ‘dogma’.

    Andrew Coates

    August 25, 2017 at 4:16 pm

  4. Dr Paul is right when he writes that the Russian revolution ultimately depended on events abroad: could the workers seize power in Europe? The trouble is that the principal justification for the Bolshevik seizure of power was that European workers were ripe for revolution, an idea later captured in the apologia that Russia was the weakest link. I’m not aware of any serious European workers leader who thought that the workers of Germany or Britain or France were ready tibiae if only the Russians would give lead. Reality was that we had the farce of Lenin’s statement in 1920 that the Russians would have to probe with bayonets whether the Poles were ripe for revolution. Levi at that time was amazed at Lenin’s refusal to be told what the European working classes were ready to. Lenin knew more about East Prussia than the Germans. Risings in western Europe were triggered to save Russia from isolation, but the Bolshevik justification for the Russian revolution itself was that Russia would not be isolated. We know how it played out. The western labour movement was split by the Comintern, that dreadful organisation that built Zonoviev-Stalin parties throughout the labour movements of the word. The simple fact is that world revolution could not have possibly started with the decision of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee. And it didn’t.


    August 25, 2017 at 8:27 pm

  5. Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism. Boris Souvraine. Translated by C.L.R. James 1939.

    “Ever since the terror, the soviets, originally elected by the workers, then by the active minority, had been nominated directly or indirectly by the Party Committees, except in insignificant villages where there were no communists. But local power did not extend beyond minor municipal business. On instructions from the administration, the preponderance of the Party was ensured by the mechanical control of the machine over all the wheels of the State. Congresses of Soviets developed into meetings strictly regulated by paid officials, and were compelled to obey instructions from above and to vote resolutions automatically and unanimously. This metamorphosis of the regime was realised step by step, unconsciously, without premeditated calculation or preconceived plan; it was the result of the general lack of culture, of the apathy of the exhausted masses and the efforts of the Bolsheviks to overcome anarchy.

    Lenin soon realised the facts, but he could not devise any other way of preventing counter-revolution in Russia, pending the spread of revolution in Europe. His well-known slogan, “We shall only attain final victory in association with the massed workers of other countries,” is reiterated in his important speeches and reports. “The Russian proletariat single-handed cannot bring the socialist revolution to a victorious conclusion, he had written in 1917 in his farewell letter to the Swiss workers. “The complete victory of the socialist revolution is impossible in a single country; it demands as a minimum the active co-operation of several advanced countries, of which Russia is not one,” he said at the Congress of Soviets in 1918. “It is obvious that only the proletariat of all the advanced countries taken together can win the final victory,” he repeated in 1919. “Victory in Russia alone will not accomplish the revolution, without its extension to other countries,” he reiterated in 1919. “Revolution will break out in other countries, or we shall perish,” he was to say in 1921 in summing up frankly the ideas of the Bolsheviks in October. “We have always pronounced and repeated this elementary Marxist truth that, for the socialist victory, the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are necessary,” he wrote in 1922. Trotsky always held the same opinion. The A.B.C. of Communism, by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, a text-book circulated by the million, said: “The workers’ communist movement can conquer only as an international communist movement.” The isolation of the Soviet Republic justified, in Lenin’s eyes, every kind of coercion for maintaining the “dictatorship of a single party.”


    Andrew Coates

    August 26, 2017 at 11:39 am

  6. A coup de etat which led to mass murder.

    Dave Roberts

    August 27, 2017 at 8:03 pm

  7. On this business of the allegedly failed German revolution, the observations of Vladimir Bazarov at the time are worth considering:



    August 27, 2017 at 9:50 pm

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